Relationship Counseling: What You Need to Know

How Relationship Counseling Can Make Relationships Stronger

counselor advising young lesbian couple at their home

NoSystem Images / E+ / Getty Images

Saying "relationships are hard" is so common that it’s a cliché now. But it’s also true. Even when people get along really well, stress and daily life can cause conflicts that seem difficult or even impossible to resolve. Relationship counseling can help people in these tough situations to work through their problems, move beyond them, and be better partners overall.

This article discusses the basics of relationship counseling, including when it may be helpful, what to expect from counseling, and how to find a qualified therapist.

What Is Relationship Counseling?

Relationship counseling, also known as couples counseling or couples therapy, is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on helping people improve their romantic relationships. By working with a therapist, couples can explore issues in their relationship, work on their communication, improve interactions, and resolve conflicts.

While relationship counseling is often used to address problems, it can be helpful at any stage of a relationship. People in healthy, happy relationships can still benefit from counseling that strengthens their communication and connection.

When to Seek Relationship Counseling

Many people believe that you should only seek relationship counseling when separation or divorce is looming. But that is often too little, too late. Relationship therapy should begin as soon as the problems get in the way of your daily life. Here are some signs that you might benefit from a consultation:

  • You have trouble expressing your feelings to one another
  • You have one or more unsolvable disagreement
  • There is withdrawal, criticism, or contempt in your interactions
  • A stressful event has shaken your daily life
  • You have trouble making decisions together
  • You have experienced infidelity, addiction, or abuse
  • You want a stronger relationship

Remember that there are no wrong reasons to seek relationship counseling. Some couples start therapy as soon as they are married, even without obvious problems, to build a strong foundation and prevent serious problems from developing. Counselors can help you become better communicators, develop strong relationship skills, and improve your family’s happiness. 

Keep in mind that the average couple waits six years before seeking therapy. This is a lot of time to let problems fester; at this point, troubled relationships are difficult to save. Instead, it's best to acknowledge problems early and seek therapy as soon as possible.

Problems with relationships are not limited to romantic ones, even though that’s the most popular reason people consult for relationship therapy.

Relationship therapy isn’t just for married people; cohabiting couples, people in non-monogamous relationships, and LGBTQ people can also benefit. It can also be helpful for siblings dealing with family issues, or even business partners.

Premarital Counseling

Premarital counseling is a type of relationship therapy that helps prepare couples to enter into a long-term commitment. This type of counseling focuses on helping couples develop a strong and healthy relationship before marriage and identify any potential problems that might lead to issues down the road.

Some of the relationship issues that might be addressed during premarital counseling include:

  • Communication
  • Family relationships
  • Finances
  • Parenting choices such as whether or not to have children and parenting style
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Sex and affection
  • Values and beliefs

This type of relationship counseling can be a good way to establish realistic expectations and develop healthy communication skills that will set a marriage off to a good start.

How to Find a Relationship Therapist

There are a number of professionals who can offer relationship therapy, including clinical psychologists, registered marriage and family therapists, licensed counselors, and licensed clinical social workers. Remember that even though their title says "marriage," you don't need to be married to benefit from relationship counseling. 

Although going to the internet is most people's first impulse when looking for a therapist, asking for references from people you know can be a more effective way to start. If you live in an urban area, there are probably hundreds of qualified therapists, and making the choice can be overwhelming.

If you can't find references from people you know, there are many other ways to find a qualified therapist, such as professional directories. You can even seek out online relationship counseling if that is more convenient for you and your partner.

Take advantage of the free consultation that many therapists offer for potential new clients. This is a great time to see if the particular counselor suits your needs, style, and budget. Therapist-client relationships can affect your life in many profound ways, and you should choose wisely.

Online Relationship Counseling

If traditional face-to-face therapy won't work for you and your partner, online counseling can be a great option. There are a number of reasons why you might want to try online therapy:

  • You and your partner live in different locations. This might apply to people who are in long-distance relationships or those who are separated and considering a permanent split. Online therapy services give both partners the option to participate even though they live apart.
  • You travel frequently for work. Online options allow people to benefit from counseling no matter how busy their schedule is or where in the world they are located.
  • You or your partner are not comfortable with traditional therapy. Face-to-face therapy can be challenging, uncomfortable, or even anxiety-provoking for some people. Web-based solutions can make relationship counseling more accessible.

Online relationship counseling services utilize tools such as online chats, video sessions, and phone calls where couples can talk to each other and their therapist. You and your partner will work to create goals that you would like to achieve in therapy, which may include addressing problems related to communication, arguments, or infidelity. 

What to Expect

The first few sessions will focus on your history and the problems you are there to solve. Be prepared to answer questions about your relationship, your parents, your childhood, and relationship experiences before your current one. Your therapist will possibly want to spend some time talking to everyone together and to each member separately.

The way your therapy is going to go depends on the style of your counselor and the therapeutic approach they use. The most studied style of relationship therapy is emotionally-focused therapy (EFT). EFT is based on attachment theory and aims to foster healthy interdependency between members of the couple or family.

Other types of relationship therapy include Imago therapy and the Gottman method. Ask your counselor which method they are trained in and which one they think is most suited to your situation.

How to Make Relationship Therapy Effective

Effective therapy depends not only on the skills and experience of the counselor but also on the willingness of the couple. There are many things you can do to make your relationship counseling more effective.

Be Honest

Don't lie to your therapist. Sometimes we lie because we don't want to be judged. However, your therapist's job is not to judge you but to help you. Stay honest, even when it's hard.

Prepare Yourself for Discomfort

Therapy can often cause discomfort because you are discovering new truths about yourself and your partner and not all of them are going to be nice or happy. Working on yourself requires that you sit with your discomfort and acknowledge that you need to grow and improve. Your therapist is there to help but ultimately is it up to you to do the work.

Listen to Your Partner(s)

Whether you are doing relationship therapy with one person or a larger family group, it's important to listen to what others have to say. Remaining on the defensive and trying to reply to everything that others bring up about your behavior is only going to make things more difficult for everyone.

Put in the Time

Therapy happens just as much in sessions as between them. Your counselor might give you homework or ask you to try new patterns of communication and interaction in between appointments. It's going to take time and effort, but remember that it is worth it.

In the end, it's the work that all members of the relationship put in that makes a difference in the results of the therapy.

Don't expect the therapist to be a wizard who's going to make all your problems disappear. Consult early, engage honestly in the process, and do the work.

If Your Partner Refuses Therapy

Even if you believe that your relationship can benefit from therapy, your partner might not be willing to participate. So what can you do in this situation? It is important to remember that you cannot force your partner into counseling. All you can ultimately do is see a therapist on your own and work on issues you are facing as an individual. 

A Word From Verywell

If you are facing challenges in your relationship, you may find that counseling can be helpful. A therapist can help you and your partner get to the root of your problems, find new ways of communication, and strengthen your connection with one another.

By working together, you and your partner can build a stronger relationship and address the conflict you might be having. You might also consider trying online therapy, which can also be highly beneficial.

Was this page helpful?
8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Schofield MJ, Mumford N, Jurkovic D, Jurkovic I, Bickerdike A. Short and long-term effectiveness of couple counseling: A study protocolBMC Public Health. 2012;12:735. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-735

  2. Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health. Couples therapy for adults experiencing relationship distress: a review of the clinical evidence and guidelines.

  3. Hewison D, Casey P, Mwamba N. The effectiveness of couple therapy: Clinical outcomes in a naturalistic United Kingdom setting. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2016;53(4):377-387. doi:10.1037/pst0000098

  4. Nielsen AC. Psychodynamic couple therapy: A practical synthesisJ Marital Fam Ther. 2017;43(4):685-699. doi:10.1111/jmft.12236

  5. DeAngelis T. Better relationships with patients lead to better outcomes. Monitor on Psychology. 2019;50(10):38. 

  6. Beasley CC, Ager R. Emotionally focused couples therapy: A systematic review of its effectiveness over the past 19 yearsJ Evid Based Soc Work. 2019;3:1-16. doi:10.1080/23761407.2018.1563013

  7. Ryan RM, Lynch MF, Vansteenkiste M, Deci EL. Motivation and autonomy in counseling, psychotherapy, and behavior change: A look at theory and practice. The Counseling Psychologist. 2011;39(2):193-260. doi:10.1177/0011000009359313

  8. Decker SE, Kiluk BD, Frankforter T, Babuscio T, Nich C, Carroll KM. Just showing up is not enough: Homework adherence and outcome in cognitive-behavioral therapy for cocaine dependenceJ Consult Clin Psychol. 2016;84(10):907-912. doi:10.1037/ccp0000126